Sex worker campaign groups fear a new hotline for informing police of suspected brothel activity in east London will embolden vigilantes.
The Metropolitan Police is encouraging residents to use a special phone line to report sightings of sex workers, suspected brothels or posters advertising erotic massages around Ilford Lane.
It follows continued campaigning from community group CleanUp Ilford Lane, whose months of protest against a concentration of street sex workers in the neighbourhood gained national media coverage.
Police ‘Are Supposed To Support Sex Worker Safety’
“It’s really shocking actually,” Laura Watson, a spokeswoman for campaign group the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) told RightsInfo.
“For the institution of the Met to be calling for this action – it gives a go ahead for vigilantes.
“It encourages people to go after sex workers and target sex workers with the police’s backing. It’s a very worrying situation.”
Ms Watson told RightsInfo that the ECP, who advocates for the industry to be decriminalised, has supported sex workers who have been repeatedly subjected to police raids and threatened with arrests, eviction and deportation in Ilford, Stratford and Romford, among other areas.
“One woman was detained in Yarl’s Wood [Immigration Removal Centre] because she did not have any papers on her as they were taken from the flat she was working in,” she said.
“She is now out of Yarl’s Wood at the moment. But we are helping her because her deportation is still hanging over her head.”
Ms Watson said that the police intel line is likely to sow distrust between sex workers and the police.
“It will mean that police have more information than they do already to arrest, raid and detain and deport sex workers,” she said. “Which means sex workers will not go to the police at all if abused or facing violence.”
Sex Workers ‘Could Be Part Of The Community’ Too
The number of street sex workers in Ilford Lane has ebbed and flowed for years, following various waves of enforcement action.
Vocal community members have long complained that the presence of sex workers, and associated “anti-social behaviour” has blighted their neighbourhood.
[Redbridge] Council’s enforcement officers have reported seeing prostitutes who apparently scatter into the surrounding streets prior to them being able to stop them.
Met Police spokesman
The most recent plug of the police’s “intel line” comes during a time that “very few prostitutes” have been seen in the area in recent weeks, a Met Police spokesman told the Ilford Recorder.
He added: “[Redbridge] Council’s enforcement officers have reported seeing prostitutes who apparently scatter into the surrounding streets prior to them being able to stop them.”
Police say there is evidence of sex workers living near Ilford Lane who can “sometimes be seen walking through, seemingly on their way to work which we believe are in brothels and/or the Stratford area.”
Community group CleanUp Ilford Lane has alleged that sex workers who used to be visible on the street are now operating in brothels.
“We need to shut this off,” a spokeswoman told the regional paper. “We don’t want our children walking down the street seeing these images.”
Earlier this year, the group campaigned unsuccessfully for their council to name and shame kerb crawlers caught visiting sex workers.
The group has since donned hi-vis jacked and taken part in volunteer “street watch”patrols along Ilford Lane to act as a deterrent.
Sex workers in Ilford Lane could also be part of that community but this group appears to send a clear message that only some people matter.
National Ugly Mugs spokeswoman
National Ugly Mugs (NUM), a sex worker protection charity, warns that media-grabbing community activist groups can cause harm if unchecked.
“Sex workers in Ilford Lane could also be part of that community but this group appears to send a clear message that only some people matter,” a spokeswoman told RightsInfo.
“With no mention of providing support services, and more importantly any safeguarding measures, the group’s activities could pose safety concerns.
“If the police are supporting Clean Up Ilford Lane as stated they really need to be looking at safeguarding measures and potential impacts on safety for sex workers that could result from this group’s activity.
“Sex workers are already targeted by perpetrators and should not be further targeted by community groups and police enforcement.”
Sex Workers ‘Scatter Into The Surrounding Streets’ As Officers Approach
In September last year, Redbridge Council became the first in the country to introduce a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) banning prostitution in the borough following a public consultation. This has allowed the council to maintain the visible presence of an enforcement officer along the street empowered to issue fines to kerb crawlers.
“This is absolutely the right thing for us to do and I’m proud we are leading the way in tackling the issue head on,” Council leader Jas Athwal said at the time. “It’s unacceptable that people going about their daily lives have to put up with being accosted and feeling unsafe.”
Inspector Lee Canter, from Redbridge’s Safer Neighbourhoods team, added: “Whilst our starting point will always be engagement, there comes a time where enforcement is necessary and we welcome the PSPO to assist in this task.
“We have listened to local residents and businesses and have carefully considered their rights against those causing anti-social behaviour.”
Last week the council was awarded £460,000 from the government’s Controlling Migration Fund to “provide a long-term solution” and offer women “the support support they need” to exit prostitution.
Under National College of Policing Guidelines, sex workers are recognised as a marginalised and vulnerable group and police must take care not to do anything that could increase their vulnerability.
A NUM spokeswoman told RightsInfo: “Unfortunately there is no consistency in policing in the UK when it comes to sex work and even when there are windows of improvement this is often wholly reliant on individual officers who understand and listen to the sex work community.”
The charity says it receives around 60 to 80 reports of crimes a month from sex workers. Only around 20 percent of these are willing to report to police.
She added: “Any enforcement approaches create further distrust of police which acts as a barrier to the reporting of crimes against sex workers. It can also displace sex workers from any local support services that are vital to their health and wellbeing.”